All systems are go in the European beverage packaging segment currently. Over the past few months a series of consolidations and divestments has redefined the industry, as the largest players fight for a bigger share of the market, or else try to increase their area of specialisation.
The biggest shake-up was last month's announcement that Australian packaging company Amcor had bought German PET and closures manufacturer Schmalbach-Lubeca for €1.7 billion. The move made Amcor the largest single player in the European market and takes the company one step closer to global dominance.
Often described as out-moded, the European beverage packaging industry still has plenty of potential as it is a growing market, so further consolidations and buy-outs seem inevitable. Amcor CEO Russell Jones recently described those running the industry as "ageing entrepreneurs" and many industry observers view him as the man that will turn the industry on its head in the coming years. Jones has already spelled out that he intends to make big changes at Schmalbach-Lubeca, a company that has been treading a familiar path for some years now.
For players such as Amcor it is the fragmentation of the European market that is providing major opportunities right now. Globalisation has not had the same impact that it has had on many of the larger industries in the past ten years, with most players largely serving the home market. Until now, that is. The Amcor move undoubtedly spells the start of far greater consolidation and with it a far greater degree of globalisation.
However, the industry is not only divided along organisational lines - adding further to the complexity of the business is the fact that beverage packaging itself comes in a variety of very different forms.
"Soft drinks packaging, the mainstay of this market, is divided up into three main areas," said Keith Barnes, a food packaging analyst with market research company Mintel, "Aluminium cans - which is currently the largest market because of the strength of Pepsi and Coke - followed by the bottle market, then the carton market.
"Right now the PET bottling segment is proving very successful, because plastic bottles have gained tremendous popularity over the past few years. This is because they are seen as being flexible and convenient.
"However this is a very fast moving market and new marketing innovations can have a huge and very immediate impact upon sales, particularly among the young and more fickle market."
Predicting what way the beverage packaging market is going next is perhaps one of the biggest challenges in the business. Resealable cans and drinks pouches have all come onto the market recently and such innovations can become over night successes, completely re-shaping the segment.
"It is a certainty that all manufacturers are moving away from glass at the present moment," said Barnes "This is because of the safety issue: the fact that glass can cause accidents as well as being used as a weapon.
"Despite the aluminium can remaining very popular, the biggest difficulty with this type of beverage packaging is that it is not deemed to be particularly healthy or flexible. Currently a major drawback is the fact that cans cannot be resealed, although resealable cans are starting to trickle onto the market now.
"The drawback with plastic is that, although it is a highly recyclable material, there are presently very few facilities that exist in Europe for plastics recycling.
"All of this means that there is no one type of beverage packaging that currently stands out as being the way forward for European beverage packaging producers. Having said that, in my opinion, the PET bottle currently has my bet because it is more flexible and it keeps the all important young market happy."
Beverage packaging continues to witness steady overall growth in the European market, so there is no lack of will on the part of manufacturers to invest in the sector. The dilemma that currently exists is which type of packaging to invest in.
In a segment defined by uncertainty, one thing seems certain: big changes to come.